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An Essay On Ghosts And Apparitions

There is no folly more predominant, in the country at least, than a
ridiculous and superstitious fear of ghosts and apparitions. Servants,
nurses, old women, and others of the same standard of wisdom, to pass
away the tediousness of a winter's evening, please and terrify
themselves, and the children who compose their audience, with strange
relations of these things, till they are even afraid of removing their
eyes from one another, for fear of seeing a pale spectre entering the
room. Frightful ideas raised in the minds of children take so strong a
possession of the faculties, that they often remain for ever fixed, and
all the arguments of reason are unable to remove them. Hence it is,
that so many grown-up people still keep the ridiculous fears of their
infancy. I know a lady, of very good sense in other things, who, if she
is left by herself after ten o'clock at night, will faint away at the
terror of thinking some horrid spectre, with eyes sunk, meagre
countenance, and threatening aspect, is standing at her elbow. And an
Officer in the Guards, of my acquaintance, who has often, abroad, shewn
no concern in marching up to the mouth of a cannon, has not courage
enough to be in the dark without company. As I take the fear of ghosts,
like all other prejudices, to be imbibed in our infancy, I would
recommend this advice to parents--to use the utmost care, that the minds
of their children are not vitiated by their servants' tales of ghosts,
hobgoblins, and bugbears; which, though told to please, or frighten them
into good, seldom fail of producing the very worst effects.

There are some who are ghost-mad, and terrify themselves, because the
Scripture has mentioned the appearance of ghosts. I shall not dispute,
but, by the power of God, an incorporeal being may be visible to human
eyes; but then, an all-wise Power would not have recourse to a
preternatural effect but on some important occasion. Therefore, my
intention is only to laugh a ridiculous fear out of the world, by
shewing on what absurd and improbable foundations the common nature of
ghosts and apparitions are built.

In the country, there are generally allowed to be two sorts of
ghosts;--the vulgar ghost, and the ghost of dignity. The latter is
always the spirit of some Lord of the Manor, or Justice of the Peace,
who, still desirous to see how affairs go on in his parish, rattles
through it in a coach and six, much about midnight. This ghost is, in
every respect, the very same man that the person whom he represents was
in his life-time. Nay, the spirit, though incorporeal, has on its body
all the marks which the Squire had on his; the scar on the cheek, the
dimple on the chin, and twenty other demonstrative signs, which are
visible to any old woman in the parish, that can see clearly in a dark

The ghost keeps up to the character of a good old grave gentleman, who
is heartily sorry to think his son will not live upon his estate, but
rambles up to London, and runs it out, perhaps, in extravagance. He
therefore does nothing inconsistent with the gravity of his character;
but, still retaining the generous heart of a true Briton, keeps up his
equipage, and loves good living and hospitality; for, a little time
after the coach and six has, with a solemn rumble, passed through the
village into his own court-yard, there is a great noise heard in the
house, of servants running up and down stairs, the jacks going, and a
great clattering of plates and dishes. Thus he spends an hour or two
every midnight, in living well, after he has been some years dead; but
is complaisant enough to leave every thing, at his departure, in the
same position that he found them.

There is scarcely a little town in all England, but has an old female
spirit appertaining to it, who, in her high-crown hat, nicely clean
linen, and red petticoat, has been viewed by half the parish. This
article of dress is of mighty concern among some ghosts; wherefore a
skilful and learned apparition writer, in the Preface of Drelincourt on
Death, makes a very pious ghost talk to a lady upon the important
subject of scouring a mantua. Before I leave my ghost of dignity, I must
take notice of some who delight to seem as formidable as possible, and
who are not content with appearing without heads themselves, but their
coachmen and horses must be without their's too, and the coach itself
frequently all on fire. These spirits, I know not for what reason, are
universally allowed to have been people of first quality, and courtiers.

As for the vulgar ghost, it seldom appears in its own bodily likeness,
unless it be with a throat cut from ear to ear, or a winding-sheet; but
humbly contents itself with the body of a white horse, that gallops over
the meadows without legs, and grazes without a head. On other occasions,
it takes the appearance of a black shock dog, which, with great goggle,
glaring eyes, stares you full in the face, but never hurts you more than
unmannerly pushing you from the wall. Sometimes a friendly ghost
surprises you with a hand as cold as clay; at other times, that same
ghostly hand gives three solemn raps, with several particularities,
according to the different dispositions of the ghost.

The chief reason which calls them back again to visit the world by
night, is their fondness for some old broad pieces, or a pot of money,
they buried in their life-time; and they cannot rest to have it lie
useless, therefore the gold raises them before the resurrection.

Mr. Addison's charming Essay, in the Spectator, is so applicable and
prefatory to a work of this nature, that we cannot resist inserting that
inimitable production in his own words.

"Going to dine," says he, "with an old acquaintance, I had the
misfortune to find his whole family very much dejected. Upon asking him
the occasion of it, he told me that his wife had dreamt a strange dream
the night before, which they were afraid portended some misfortune to
themselves or to their children. At her coming into the room, I observed
a settled melancholy in her countenance, which I should have been
troubled for, had I not heard from whence it proceeded. We were no
sooner sat down, but, after having looked upon me a little while, 'My
dear,' says she, turning to her husband, 'you may now see the stranger
that was in the candle last night.' Soon after this, as they began to
talk of family affairs, a little boy at the lower end of the table told
her, that he was to go into join-hand on Thursday. 'Thursday!' says she;
'no, child; if it please God, you shall not begin upon Childermas-day;
tell your writing-master, that Friday will be soon enough.' I was
reflecting with myself on the oddness of her fancy, and wondering that
any body would establish it as a rule to lose a day in every week. In
the midst of these my musings, she desired me to reach her a little salt
upon the point of my knife, which I did in such a trepidation and hurry
of obedience, that I let it drop by the way; at which she immediately
startled, and said it fell towards her. Upon this I looked very blank;
and, observing the concern of the whole table, began to consider myself,
with some confusion, as a person that had brought a disaster upon the
family. The lady, however, recovering herself after a little space,
said to her husband, with a sigh, 'My dear, misfortunes never come
single.' My friend, I found, acted but an under part at his table; and,
being a man of more good-nature than understanding, thinks himself
obliged to fall in with all the passions and humours of his yoke-fellow.
'Do not you remember, child,' said she, 'that the pigeon-house fell the
very afternoon that our careless wench spilt the salt upon the table?'
'Yes,' says he, 'my dear; and the next post brought us an account of the
battle of Almanza.' The reader may guess at the figure I made, after
having done all this mischief. I dispatched my dinner as soon as I
could, with my usual taciturnity; when, to my utter confusion, the lady
seeing me quitting my knife and fork, and laying them across one another
upon the plate, desired me that I would humour her so far as to take
them out of that figure, and place them side by side. What the absurdity
was which I had committed, I did not know, but I suppose there was some
traditionary superstition in it; and therefore, in obedience to the lady
of the house, I disposed of my knife and fork in two parallel lines,
which is the figure I shall always lay them in for the future, though I
do not know any reason for it.

"It is not difficult for a man to see that a person has conceived an
aversion to him. For my own part, I quickly found, by the lady's looks,
that she regarded me as a very odd kind of fellow, with an unfortunate
aspect. For which reason I took my leave immediately after dinner, and
withdrew to my own lodgings. Upon my return home, I fell into a profound
contemplation on the evils that attend these superstitious follies of
mankind; how they subject us to imaginary afflictions and additional
sorrows, that do not properly come within our lot. As if the natural
calamities of life were not sufficient for it, we turn the most
indifferent circumstances into misfortunes, and suffer as much from
trifling accidents as from real evils. I have known the shooting of a
star spoil a night's rest; and have seen a man in love grow pale, and
lose his appetite, upon the plucking of a merry-thought. A screech-owl
at midnight has alarmed a family more than a band of robbers; nay, the
voice of a cricket hath struck more terror than the roaring of a lion.
There is nothing so inconsiderable, which may not appear dreadful to an
imagination that is filled with omens and prognostics. A rusty nail, or
a crooked pin, shoot up into prodigies.

"I remember, I was once in a mixed assembly, that was full of noise and
mirth, when on a sudden an old woman unluckily observed there were
thirteen of us in company. This remark struck a panic terror into
several who were present, insomuch that one or two of the ladies were
going to leave the room: but a friend of mine, taking notice that one of
our female companions was big with child, affirmed there were fourteen
in the room; and that, instead of portending one of the company should
die, it plainly foretold one of them should be born. Had not my friend
found out this expedient to break the omen, I question not but half the
women in the company would have fallen sick that very night.

"An old maid, that is troubled with the vapours, produces infinite
disturbances of this kind among her friends and neighbours. I once knew
a maiden aunt, of a great family, who is one of these antiquated sybils,
that forebodes and prophesies from one end of the year to the other. She
is always seeing apparitions, and hearing death-watches; and was the
other day almost frightened out of her wits by the great house-dog, that
howled in the stable at a time when she lay ill of the tooth-ach. Such
an extravagant cast of mind engages multitudes of people not only in
impertinent terrors, but in supernumerary duties of life; and arises
from that fear and ignorance which are natural to the soul of man. The
horror with which we entertain the thoughts of death or indeed of any
future evil, and the uncertainty of its approach, fill a melancholy mind
with innumerable apprehensions and suspicions, and consequently dispose
it to the observation of such groundless prodigies and predictions. For,
as it is the chief concern of wise men to retrench the evils of life by
the reasonings of philosophy, it is the employment of fools to multiply
them by the sentiments of superstition.

"For my own part, I should be very much troubled, were I endowed with
this divining quality, though it should inform me truly of every thing
that can befal me. I would not anticipate the relish of any happiness,
nor feel the weight of any misery, before it actually arrives.

"I know but one way of fortifying my soul against these gloomy presages
and terrors of mind; and that is, by securing to myself the friendship
and protection of that Being who disposes of events, and governs
futurity. He sees at one view the whole thread of my existence; not only
that part of it which I have already passed through, but that which runs
forward into all the depths of eternity. When I lay me down to sleep, I
recommend myself to his care; when I awake, I give myself up to his
direction. Amidst all the evils that threaten me, I will look up to him
for help and question not but he will either avert them, or turn them
to my advantage. Though I know neither the time nor the manner of the
death I am to die, I am not at all solicitous about it; because I am
sure that he knows them both, and that he will not fail to comfort and
support me under them."

In another paper, the same gentleman thus expresses himself on the same

"I remember, last winter, there were several young girls of the
neighbourhood sitting about the fire with my landlady's daughters, and
telling stories of spirits and apparitions. Upon my opening the door,
the young women broke off their discourse; but my landlady's daughters
telling them it was nobody but the gentleman (for that is the name which
I go by in the neighbourhood as well as in the family), they went on
without minding me. I seated myself by the candle that stood on a table
at one end of the room; and, pretending to read a book that I took out
of my pocket, heard several dreadful stories of ghosts as pale as ashes,
that stood at the feet of a bed, or walked over a church-yard by
moonlight; and of others that had been conjured into the Red Sea, for
disturbing people's rest, and drawing their curtains at midnight; with
many other old women's fables of the like nature. As one spirit raised
another, I observed that at the end of every story the whole company
closed their ranks, and crowded about the fire. I took notice in
particular of a little boy, who was so attentive to every story, that I
am mistaken if he ventures to go to bed by himself this twelvemonth.
Indeed, they talked so long, that the imaginations of the whole assembly
were manifestly crazed, and, I am sure, will be the worse for it as long
as they live. I heard one of the girls, that had looked upon me over her
shoulder, asking the company how long I had been in the room, and
whether I did not look paler than I used to do. This put me under some
apprehensions that I should be forced to explain myself, if I did not
retire; for which reason I took the candle in my hand, and went up into
my chamber, not without wondering at this unaccountable weakness in
reasonable creatures, that they should love to astonish and terrify one
another. Were I a father, I should take particular care to preserve my
children from those little horrors of imagination, which they are apt to
contract when they are young, and are not able to shake off when they
are in years. I have known a soldier, that has entered a breach,
affrighted at his own shadow, and look pale upon a little scratching at
his door, who the day before had marched up against a battery of cannon.
There are instances of persons who have been terrified, even to
distraction, at the figure of a tree, or the shaking of a bulrush. The
truth of it is, I look upon a sound imagination as the greatest blessing
of life, next to a clear judgment and a good conscience. In the mean
time, since there are very few whose minds are not more or less subject
to these dreadful thoughts and apprehensions, we ought to arm ourselves
against them by the dictates of reason and religion, to pull the old
woman out of our hearts (as Persius expresses it), and extinguish those
impertinent notions which we imbibed at a time that we were not able to
judge of their absurdity. Or, if we believe, as many wise and good men
have done, that there are such phantoms and apparitions as those I have
been speaking of, let us endeavour to establish to ourselves an interest
in Him who holds the reins of the whole creation in his hand, and
moderates them after such a manner, that it is impossible for one being
to break loose upon another without his knowledge and permission.

"For my own part, I am apt to join in opinion with those who believe
that all the regions of nature swarm with spirits; and that we have
multitudes of spectators on all our actions, when we think ourselves
most alone. But, instead of terrifying myself with such a notion, I am
wonderfully pleased to think that I am always engaged with such an
innumerable society, in searching out the wonders of the creation, and
joining in the same concert of praise and adoration.

"Milton has finely described this mixed communion of men and spirits in
Paradise; and had, doubtless, his eye upon a verse in old Hesiod, which
is almost, word for word, the same with his third line in the following

'----Nor think, though men were none,
That Heav'n would want spectators, God want praise:
Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth
Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep;
All these with ceaseless praise his works behold,
Both day and night. How often from the steep
Of echoing hill or thicket have we heard
Celestial voices to the midnight air,
Sole, or responsive each to other's note,
Singing their great Creator? Oft in bands,
While they keep watch, or nightly rounding walk,
With heav'nly touch of instrumental sounds,
In full harmonic number join'd, their songs
Divide the night, and lift our thoughts to heav'n.'--"

Another celebrated writer says--"Some are over credulous in these
stories, others sceptical and distrustful, and a third sort perfectly

"Mr. Locke assures us, we have as clear an idea of spirit as of body.
But, if it be asked, how a spirit, that never was embodied, can form to
itself a body, and come up into a world where it has no right of
residence, and have all its organs perfected at once; or how a spirit,
once embodied, but now in a separate state, can take up its carcase out
of the grave, sufficiently repaired, and make many resurrections before
the last; or how the dead can counterfeit their own bodies, and make to
themselves an image of themselves; by what ways and means, since
miracles ceased, this transformation can be effected; by whose leave and
permission, or by what power and authority, or with what wise design,
and for what great ends and purposes, all this is done, we cannot easily
imagine; and the divine and philosopher together will find it very
difficult to resolve such questions.

"Before the Christian aera, some messages from the other world might be
of use, if not necessary, in some cases, and on some extraordinary
occasions; but since that time we want no new, nor can we have any
surer, informations.

"Conscience, indeed, is a frightful apparition itself; and I make no
question but it oftentimes haunts an oppressing criminal into
restitution, and is a ghost to him sleeping or waking: nor is it the
least testimony of an invisible world, that there is such a drummer as
that in the soul, that can beat an alarm when he pleases, and so loud,
as no other noise can drown it, no music quiet it, no power silence it,
no mirth allay it, and no bribe corrupt it."

Inexhaustible are the opinions on this subject: therefore we shall
conclude this Essay, and proceed to the more illustrative part of our
work, without any further quotations; for various are the methods
proposed by the learned for the laying of ghosts and apparitions.
Artificial ones are easily quieted, if we only take them for real and
substantial beings, and proceed accordingly. Thus, when a Friar,
personating an apparition, haunted the apartment of the late Emperor
Joseph, King Augustus, then at the Imperial court, flung him out of the
window, and laid him upon the pavement so effectually, that he never
rose or appeared again in this world.

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